The hipster haunts every city street and university town. Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone). He harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness. Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. [...] He is a walking citation; his clothes refer to much more than themselves. He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.
I feel like a piece like this crops up every year or so, and the consistent factor in all these articles is that the author feels left out of a culture that he/she does not belong to. This article feels about as accurate as those that came out of 9/11 declaring that irony was “dead.” If anything, the hipsters I have known have been excessively earnest people … the only way you might think otherwise is if you were extrapolating their entire person from their clothes, facial hair, and twitter feeds. Lady Gaga may wear a meat dress, but she also gives speeches about bullying. Those same smirking “harlequins” were the ones who started the Occupy movement.
More importantly, I disagree with the premise that earnestness is inherently superior to irony. Since when has the ability to laugh — especially at oneself — been a bad thing?2 The author points to 4 year-old children and animals as exemplars of earnest behavior. From where I stand, those are not necessarily things for adults to aspire to. To celebrate humanity is to celebrate the ways we are different from animals — irony is one of the ways we can do that.
Sure, there’s a possible danger to too much detachment. And, as I’ve discussed before, it can be used to hurt people. But none of these things are unique to one generation.
Please pass the word to any-and-all librarians you know that the historic CC Mellor Library in Pittsburgh is looking for a new children’s librarian! This library is two blocks from my house and it is a truly lovely building in the middle of a charming, safe, historic neighborhood.
If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you should know that it is an incredibly livable city — some people (ahem, Forbes Magazine, The Economist) would even say it is the most livable in the United States. Also, it is home to Mr. Rodgers. Try and tell me you don’t want to come to work in a place that looks like this:
Just to sweeten the pot: I’ll take whoever gets the job to D’s Six Pack and Dogs for dinner — you have not lived until you’ve eaten a salad with french fries on top.
You can find all the info about the position here. Tell your friends!
One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately are the differences between cable and network television. This is not a new topic. Much hay has been made of the way pay-channels like HBO and Showtime don’t have to worry about commercial breaks … but why is it that even the shows on “free” cable channels like FX and AMC still feel better than network shows?1
For me, one essential factor is the difference in season lengths. Cable TV shows generally only run for 11-13 episodes per season, while network shows nearly double that number. Obviously, a writer needing to produce twice as much content in the same year might end up sacrificing quality for speed … but what if there were another reason? What if a shorter season was actually linked to better storytelling in some essential way?
This week I’ve been enjoying reading the AV Club’s series of interviews with “Freaks & Geeks” creator Paul Feig, in which he talks through the writing and shooting of every episode in the short-lived series. In the interview, Feig discusses how he and co-creator Judd Apatow discovered early on they were being cancelled at the end of the season:
This comment was sort of an “Aha!” moment for me. Suddenly, Feig and co-creator Judd Apatow had to cram all the best story parts into the final six episodes. And maybe that’s why “Freaks & Geeks” was such a brilliant show — every episode felt like it was truly an event. I can’t help but wonder if the show would have been quite as strong without the axe hanging over the creators’ heads?2
Going back to the question of cable shows, I can’t help but think of how Feig’s experience applies to season premieres and finales. Premieres and finales are where a series delvers its biggest dramatic punch — rules are changed, people are killed, stakes are raised. A little basic math informs me that a cable show (whose seasons end after just 13 episodes) will have those moments twice as often as a network show. No matter how you cut it, that gives the cable show a huge storytelling advantage because it disallows filler.3
How does this apply to writing in general? I suspect it connects somehow to series books, but I haven’t worked that part out. In the meantime, it’s simply a powerful parable about the importance of not holding anything back. I’m currently in the middle of a second book, and I’m constantly getting exciting story ideas that I think I should save for a story in the distant future. That’s ridiculous. I should be putting everything into the book I’m writing now. I should be treating this book like the last one I may ever get to write.
- “Free” is, of course, a euphamism for hundreds of dollars a year ↩
- British TV seems to have internalized this idea without the need of a network axe. Consider the abbreviated runs of “The Office” or “Fawlty Towers,” both of which ended because their respective creators would rather have no new episodes than bad new episodes ↩
- If you’re in the mood for more TV thoughts, you should check out screenwriter Matt Bird’s current blog series “How to Create a TV Show” ↩
The last five weeks have been an insane grind for Team Auxier. I was planning to do several posts announcing various things as they came up, but time got away from me. Instead, I’m just going down the list …
I’ve been touring schools and bookstores all over California — about thirty events in the last month. (Click here to see pictures from a recent event … and video of me doing a favorite YO-YO trick!) I also managed to sneak out to Wordstock in Portland and the Miami Book Fair International.1
I OPTIONED A MOVIE
To real producers! With real money! The story is one I’ve been working on for a while — a period ghost tale in the tradition of Washington Irving about a haunted tree. The one problem was that selling the movie meant I had to completely re-write the last half while on book tour. I finished last night!
This month, Mary and I packed up all our dishes and made the 3000 mile trek to Pittsburgh, PA!2 The ‘Burgh is a wonderful city that has topped virtually every “most livable” list for the last decade. Also, we met there.
WE BOUGHT A HOUSE!
One great thing about Pittsburgh is an abundance of amazing old homes. Coming from the West Coast, I thrill at the idea of living in something not covered in stucco. As of last night, Mary and I are the owners of this hundred year-old gem on a tree-lined street in Regent Square. How’s that for a black Friday purchase?
AND THE LAST THING …
You might be asking yourself why a young couple might leave sunny Los Angeles for snowy Pittsburgh? Well, Mary grew up here, and we want to be near family when we have our baby in May. Did I mention we’re having a baby? Because we so totally are.
What’s the difference between irony and sarcasm? Most thesauri list them as synonyms, but anyone who’s been on the receiving end of either type of humor can tell you the difference at once: ironic statements make you laugh, and sarcastic statements make you cry.
Many a protective parent has assured his or her teased child that sarcasm is the lowest form of humor. And the word sarcasm literally translates to mean “to tear the flesh.” But what exactly is it it about a sarcastic statement that makes it a low form of humor? And what makes it “tear the flesh?” I’ve been mulling over this question for a while now, and I think I’ve landed on an answer:
Sarcasm happens when the observed irony does not extend to the speaker.
That is to say that an ironic person includes himself among the mocked, whereas a sarcastic person stands outside the situation in judgement. See how it might play out in the below scene involving a bunch of nerds camping outside of a movie theater:
In this instance, the guy making fun of the people is including himself in the joke — after all, he’s in the line, too! But consider what happens when the speaker is not in line with the others:
Sarcasm is the one kind of joke that can be made by someone who does not actually find something funny — it is humor for the humorless. In life, I have a problem with sarcasm because I don’t believe that any person has the right to laugh at others unless he can first laugh at himself.
And what about sarcasm in storytelling?
To be clear, I’m all for sarcastic characters (I enjoy Holden Caulfield as much as the next guy!). But sarcastic authors are a different thing altogether. Sarcastic authors attempt to point out absurdities in the world, but they try to do it from a safe distance — never letting themselves become a part of the joke. The only way to do this is by creating straw men for the express purpose of knocking them down. Ironically(!), this ends up undercutting the author’s initial goal, because now instead of critiquing the world, he is critiquing some flimsy characters who bear little resemblance to the world.
The end result is a thing neither funny nor true.
I’m sure regular Scop readers are getting sick of all my recent publicity-style announcements about Peter Nimble. In that spirit, I am going to restrain my gushing about last week’s book launch party to the footnote at the end of this sentence.1 Instead, I want to focus on one question that came up during the Q & A from blogger/teacher Monica Edinger.
Monica wanted me to discuss how I had patterned my narrator after the narrator in JM Barrie’s Peter Pan.2 Though flattered by the comparison, I didn’t agree with her point. I wasn’t able to sufficiently respond to her at the event, but I did follow up with an email, which I’ve excerpted below.
My Three Reasons that the Narrator in Peter Nimble Is Different than the Narrator of Peter Pan:
Barrie gives his Narrator a special vocabulary. If the digressions of Peter Pan indicate that the Narrator is spinning his tale, his language enforces it. More than once, Barrie uses opaque terms that have no grounding in the real world. A perfect example of this would be Mrs. Darling’s “kiss,” which never really gets explained. That’s because there is no explanation beyond its offhand use. Unlike the teacherly essayists of the 18th century (and, I would argue, Peter Nimble’s Narrator), Barrie’s Narrator isn’t interested in sharing/defining this special vocabulary with his readers.
Barrie’s Narrator sentimentalizes childhood. While Barrie isn’t afraid to let his child characters get a little bloody, he still maintains an infatuation with their innate innocence reminiscent of the Romantics. Even in calling Peter Pan “heartless,” there is a sense of longing in the Narrator’s voice … children are to him pure in a way adults will never be. I would argue that in the Narrator of Peter Nimble, we may find affection toward our young hero, but never adoration of the level that Barrie uses for Peter Pan… the Narrator of Peter Nimble, for example, would never suggest that Peter or Peg contains something special that adults like Professor Cake do not.
Monica was kind enough to respond. While she agreed with my above points, she also thought I was ignoring one major similarity in our writing — specifically how both our narrators are able to move between character perspectives. I’ve reprinted Monica’s excellent response below (with some minor edits).
Monica’s One Gigantic Reason That I’m Wrong:
When reading Peter Nimble I noticed the omniscient narrator as a character, breaking through here and there to explain things … I became extremely aware of this sort of narration due to Philip Pullman.3 Philip speaks of his narrator as a sprite, a character who can flit all over the place. I did think you did that as did Barrie … isn’t your narrator in that tradition of being able to be in different places, inside the minds of different characters, etc.? This is what Philip finds so fascinating about the omniscient narrator and me, too.
And just like that, I’m forced to completely reverse my opinion on the subject! Going through the book, I realize that a narrator that shifts perspectives is a pretty rare thing, and other than Barrie, I can’t think of another early author that does it. Well played, Ms. Edinger.
And she’s not alone! This very same topic came up last week in an interview with author Kate Milford … and my response was similarly dense.
What’s the moral of this story?
Never trust a writer to talk about his own book. He’s an idiot.
- Holy crap, it was AMAZING! We had about 90 people show up … which is a lot more than they had chairs for! I got a chance to meet so many wonderful readers, and reconnect with old friends. We gave away Peter Nimble t-shirts to everyone who asked questions. There was also a birthday cake, which was delicious! (I even forced the people to sing “happy Birthday” to me!) The biggest treat of all was that my father, who had just had emergency surgery in DC, checked himself out of the hospital that morning so he could show up and surprise me — I may or may not have cried upon seeing him. For those interested in seeing some pics, you can go here, here, or here. Also, Adam Silva did a great rundown of the event here. ↩
- I have a well-documented love for Peter Pan. Betsy Bird outlines a few Barrie connections in her School Library Journal review. Also, I talk about the relationship between one of my main characters and Wendy Darling in this interview with Bookpage Magazine. ↩
- Yes, she is on a first-name basis with the man! For those who are interested in the subject of the “sprite” narrator, I’d advise you to check out Monica’s very-excellent post on the subject here. ↩
Here’s another thing that makes Mary awesome: she lets me draw tattoos on her! Pretty much every night while she’s reading in bed, I pull out a pen and give her a sweet tat on her arm, shoulder, or foot.1 I work with a variety of themes in my art — most of them are slightly more violent re-imaginings of Lisa Frank pictures.2 Take this most recent example, which I have titled “Zebra with Machine Gun”:
Please note how the Artist has chosen to make the bullets from the machine gun go all the way around the arm and then explode in back of the Zebra’s head! Genius! Now if only she’d let me frame the original…3
- I have tried, more than once, to tattoo her face, but for some reason, she refuses. ↩
- To see more of my Fine Art, I direct readers to check out “Easter Bunny vs. Holo-Shark” and “Editorus Rex” ↩
- Roald Dahl actually wrote a terrifying, brilliant short story entitled “Skin” in which an old man has a tattoo on his back done by a famous artist. The story does not end well for the old man. ↩
Today is the birthday of America! Also my wife! Last year I found an old bicycle and re-painted it for her. As everyone knows, bicycles need names. Mine is “Danny the Champion of the World”. I named Mary’s after one of her favorite Dickens’ characters: ”Little Dorrit“.
I leave you all with a patriotic quote from children’s author and all-round smartypants, EB White:1
“Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time.”
And while we’re at it, something from Mark Twain:
“God created war so that Americans would learn geography.”
I might add that this is also why God created Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. Do it, Rockapella!
For the uninitiated, Settlers of Catan is a “German style” board game that involves building towns and cities on an island — sort of a pre-industrial Monopoly that works on bartering rather than bank accounts. Settlers has helped usher in a golden age of board gaming, supplanting classics like Risk and Diplomacy as the favorite Friday night activity of nerdy boys in AP History.2
In fact, Risk is something I’ve used more than once to explain Settlers to newcomers. Both games involve a map, cards, and anxious rounds of placing armies/towns on unclaimed real estate. There is, however, one key difference between Settlers of Catan and Risk: I hate Risk.
Risk is Candy Land in wingtips and a smoking jacket — a game of luck pretending to be a game of skill. “But how can you say that Jonathan?” you protest. “Risk involves military strategy! and sacrifice! and cannons!” Perhaps, but the fact is that when all is said and done, the dice are king. You could be Napoleon Bonaparte facing off against Gomer Pyle, but if you’re rolling bad dice, you’re going to lose.
Of course, luck is not in and of itself a bad thing. Pretty much every good board game includes a little bit of chaos to confound best-laid plans.3 Settlers makes heavy use of dice and random card drawing — so why doesn’t it inspire the same frustrations as Risk?
This weekend I spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between luck and strategy in these two games in the hope of figuring out how they differ … and I think I figured out an answer!
First let’s look at how luck and strategy work in Risk: a player’s turn begins with fortifying his/her countries with armies (skill); then they maneuver those armies to attack their enemies (skill); then they roll the dice to see if their attacks were successful (luck).
And now Settlers of Catan: a player starts his/her turn by rolling a dice, which determines how many resources they acquire (luck), then they barter with other players for the things they need (skill), and then they spend the resources to expand their empire (skill).
So, in Risk, people make plans and then luck determines the outcome; but in Settlers, luck initiates the action and then players must react. When I broke it down like that, I began to wonder whether the key to a board game being fun for me was in the sequence of luck and strategy. Whist, Canasta, Cribbage, Scrabble, Scatergories … in all these games the biggest piece of luck comes at the beginning rather than the end of play.
So what does this have to do with The Scop?
Well, the more I thought about my luck/strategy preference, the more I thought it could be applied to more than just board games. I like the idea that humans have a chance to react to the things we can’t control. Consider, for example, how luck interacts with stories. In all my favorite books/movies/plays, some unpredictable event (luck) thrusts a hero into the middle of a plot in which he must react (strategy).
In fact, this idea of keeping your biggest piece of luck at the top of the story is pretty well documented in the writing world.4 When it happens at the beginning, we call it an “inciting incident.” But when writers save their biggest roll of the dice for the final scene, we call it a “deus ex machina.”
And nobody likes those things.
* * *
I have recently been inspired by book critic Laura Miller to try limiting my in-text links in favor of a list at the end. Let me know if you approve:
- A fantastic Wired feature about how Settlers of Catan is the “Monopoly Killer”
- Speaking of, watch this hilarious mock trailer for a Monopoly movie
- TV Tropes article hating on Deus Ex Machinas
- A discussion of inciting incidents in screenwriting
- The Salon article in which Laura Miller dumps on hyperlinks
- This is an understatement: Mary was not allowed to marry into the family until she could hold her own in whist. ↩
- Or IB History, as was the case for this particular nerdy boy. ↩
- Except for chess, of course, which might explain its standing as a legitimate sport. ↩
- “luck” in this case being defined as a plot event that the main characters have no control over. ↩
Last month I wrote a post about how my father shaped me as a reader — so I thought today it would be appropriate to talk about my mum.1 That’s her in the photo, reading to my cousins … but it’s a pretty accurate picture of my own childhood.
I come from a family of serious readers. When my mother was growing up in the middle of South Dakota farmland, she read every book in her local library. My parents didn’t have much money growing up, but they did have stacks upon stacks of books. In fact, it wasn’t until I got to college that I learned that reading at the dinner table was considered rude. Auxiers were readers — end of story.
Or at least that’s how I remembered it. But recently, I learned something from my mother that made me take a second look at my upbringing … and made me love her all the more:
It happened right before I entered second grade. It was the end of summer, just before class would start, and my parents sat me down to explain that I would not be going back to my elementary school. Instead I would take a year off for something called “home schooling”. At the time, my mother was completing an MA in Gifted Education, and I suspected at once that this whole home schooling thing was something she had made up. Not that I objected. As I recall it, my home school year consisted of playing Construx and memorizing lists of random facts she fed me — art history, prepositions, the presidents, and other things no seven year-old had any business knowing.2 At the end of the year, I went back to regular school. Only I didn’t go into third grade with my former classmates … instead I was put into a second-grade class with kids that were younger. It was only then that I realized the truth:
I had been held back.
I remember being confused at why my parents might have thought me unfit for the rigors of second grade. I mean, it’s second grade. It wasn’t like I couldn’t handle the workload. So why hold me back? Whenever I asked my mother, she would just shrug and say that she had wanted to spend some more time with me.
My second try at second grade was a blast. The big thing I remember was a year-long reading competition. Students were required to fill out little book reports, and the kid with the most book reports at the end of the year got an awesome plastic trophy.3 My parents, who are some of the least competitive people I’ve ever known, were uncharacteristically invested in the event — there were constant trips to the library, and a gentle-but-unmistakable pressure to make sure I handed in those reports. All told, I read 88 books that year. Even better than that trophy (which I totally won), were all the great authors I had discovered! Over those months, I had transitioned from stupid formulaic mysteries to Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, John Fitzgerald, and Lloyd Alexander.
It wasn’t until almost 20 years later that I made the connection between these two memories. It came while I was teasing my mother for taking me out of school just so I could learn to say all my prepositions in a single breath (which I can still do). To this she replied: “I couldn’t care less about prepositions … I took you out of school because you didn’t like reading.”
Huh? I loved reading! What was she talking about?!
My mother explained that even though I knew how to read as a kid, my teacher had warned her that I didn’t seem to enjoy it very much. And so she made an executive decision: pull me out of school and FORCE me to love reading. Every single day she would sit down and read a book to me, and then she would make me read a book myself. After that, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted (Construx!).
To this day, I have no memory of this home school reading regiment. But when I think about the year that followed, about all the wonderful books that I devoured, I start to see that it may have worked. Thanks, mum.